SG50: What The Public Service Learnt

​The successful year-long celebrations strengthened the Public Service’s capacity to engage with its partners in new, collaborative ways that bode well for the future.

SG50 What The Public Service Learnt

Date Posted

19 Jan 2017


Issue 16, 14 Dec 2016

In 2015, Singapore celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence with SG50: a broad, year-long series of inclusive and people-oriented activities, initiatives and programmes — from large-scale signature events to sectoral or community-led projects, and ground-up initiatives. SG50 sought to rally Singaporeans to reflect on and celebrate what we had achieved together and what being Singaporean meant, in order to deepen national pride and cohesion, and optimism about our future.

There were many avenues for Singaporeans to be involved in SG50: as a participant, a volunteer, an organiser, a vendor or a sponsor; or a combination of different roles in various initiatives. For the Public Service, SG50 was a remarkable opportunity to connect with Singaporeans in diverse new ways. As recounted by public agencies after the event, SG50 yielded a range of learning experiences and insights centred on four aspects: planning and strategic communications, multi-agency collaboration in large-scale events, community engagement and the government as catalyst.


Planning for the celebrations started over two years leading up to 2015 and played a critical role in weaving the range of SG50 activities into a cohesive whole. Public communications was important in ensuring that the SG50 celebrations were broad-based and inclusive — involving all ages and the less privileged. Strategic communications was also important in galvanising the public to participate through tailored messaging and activities, and building the mood from a tone of reflection and memory to shared celebration and optimism about our future.


A guiding narrative based on people and shared values
A reference narrative was developed to guide the overall planning of programmes and communications. Conceived as the story of Singapore’s people and the nation’s shared values (rather than the conventional storyline of economic and technical progress) it provided a coherent thread across the broad range of celebratory activities, with a crucial human touch.

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The year-long SG50 celebrations was marked by several signature, national and even regional events: from the SEA Games to the Jubilee Weekend around National Day itself and the future-oriented Future of Us exhibition1 which capped the jubilee year. All of these involved extensive multi-agency collaborations and coordination, as well as tens of thousands of volunteers from all walks of life, on a much larger scale than in past years. The planning and execution of this range of mass events in a single year tapped not only the public sector but also people and private-sector resources.

The complexity and significance of the SG50 events were further heightened by the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, on 23 March. The week of national mourning that followed Mr Lee’s passing saw an unprecedented outpouring of emotions by Singaporeans. Events to mark his passing, including the Lying-in-State, demonstrated exemplary coordination and collaboration within Government and also between the public, private and people sectors. It was a poignant moment that brought forth the very essence of the Singaporean spirit, values and sense of national unity that SG50 hoped to evoke.


Multi-agency coordinating structure to facilitate planning and execution
A central coordination platform comprising multi-agency representatives formed the backbone of the organising structure of mega events under SG50. Roles were identified based on the strengths of each agency, for example: People’s Association’s extensive experience in community engagement, the Home Team in handling public safety and security, and the Ministry of Communications and Information in public communications. Within the central coordinating team, regular communications was integral in keeping everyone posted on developments, facilitating coordination and anticipating issues. Agencies also set aside or modified their agendas in order to achieve more impactful, whole-of-government outcomes. For example, the Urban Redevelopment Authority adjusted their plans for the launch of the Jubilee Bridge in order to accommodate the Jubilee Big Walk1 in November 2015.

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Developing a shared sense of place was one of the intents of community engagement during SG50. This refers to “a sense of the character or identity” associated to certain places, as well as “a sense of belonging” or “a sense of our own identity as shaped in relation to those places”.2 Scholars have highlighted the critical role of community participation and storytelling in developing the sense of place, in making heritage a living practice. They described such collective engagement as occurring not only in space, but also over time, “with meaning evolving as the past becomes more distant and the present changes.”3 These seem to have been borne out throughout the various SG50 experiences.

Community engagement during SG50 involved the community organising and participating in activities, often in ways that expressed values of mutual care, social cohesion, national pride and belonging. Many of these initiatives helped strengthened Singaporeans’ connection with their shared physical and communal heritage and with each other. Such activities included: the SG Heart Map, SG50 Concerts in the Park, mySG trails and exhibitions, Portraits of the People, PAssionArts, revamp of the National Museum, SEA Games, ASEAN Para Games, and the Care & Share Movement.


Fostering Human-to-Human Connections through Stories
Through a six-month crowdsourcing exercise, the SG Heart Map1 initiative encouraged Singaporeans to tell their stories of fond memories and emotional connection with specific places in Singapore. The exercise generated some 100,000 stories, which underlined the power of stories in nurturing a sense of place and making heritage a living practice. Some 70% of the stories were submitted through hardcopy, despite the availability of digital submission channels, highlighting the value of physical interaction and the human touch, even in an age of digital technology. The involvement of some 74,000 students in the mySG trails and exhibitions,2 one of the Ministry of Education’s SG50 initiatives, helped our youth to appreciate the deeper meaning and values behind a community’s experiences of a place as it evolves over time. It also helped strengthen personal bonds between the students and the 36,000 members of the public they led on the guided tours, offering a fresh perspective on Singapore viewed through the eyes of its young people.

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As an inclusive, people-focused celebration, SG50 opened up many avenues to actively pursue a participative approach to involve as many Singaporeans as possible in planning, execution and involvement in its many public programmes.4 A wide range of initiatives was generated based on different modes of public participation, with Government playing the role of catalyst. These included ground-up initiatives supported by the SG50 Celebration Fund and the YouthSpeak conversation series convened by the National Youth Council in partnership with youth organisations.

This catalytic role may involve providing information, platforms and funding; connecting people with similar interests and ideas to achieve synergy; and connecting them to others with the experience and expertise to further shape and actualise their ideas towards the betterment of society. It has been described as government becoming the hub of a series of relationships in society, organised for acting with others rather than doing things to or for them.5


Government as Enabler
The SG50 Celebration Fund, set up to support worthwhile ground-up initiatives to engage and connect Singaporeans in meaningful ways, attracted some 2,095 applications — 10 times the original forecast. A total of 420 projects were approved, each funded for up to $50,000. The success of the fund showed that Government can indeed help catalyse self-organising, ground-up initiatives that benefit society. A new $25-million Our Singapore Fund1 has since been launched to sustain the momentum of active citizenry in shaping the future of Singapore.

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The learning aspects that have emerged from the public sector’s SG50 experience — planning and strategic communications, multi-agency collaboration in large-scale events, community engagement and government as catalyst — are consistent with concepts of the relational state6 and collaborative, networked government7 proposed by contemporary public sector thinkers. These also reflect the new approaches needed in order for governments to navigate the realities of today’s increasingly uncertain and complex environment, in which national outcomes are beyond the control of any one public agency, or even the Government, alone. The success of society will come to depend not on traditional, vertical hiererachies alone, but on a complex web of interdependencies between flexible, connected, collaborative nodes, both within the public sector and across the different sectors in society. Describing this shift, Mulgan envisions government becoming the hub of a series of connections in society “which are organised in ways that create trust, legitimacy, and public value.” Relationships become the core.

Reflecting this paradigm shift in governance, Head of Civil Service Peter Ong made the point in The Straits Times that “No one has the monopoly on ideas and the public service may not always have the answer, or be the answer. We are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to crowdsource, consult and co-create — both within the service and with Singaporeans — as we shape our future together … Beyond hard structural changes, we must internalise systems thinking and collaboration as part of our shared culture so that it will be second nature for all of us to work across agency boundaries and tackle issues of priority. We will then be able to tap the wisdom of crowds as well as innovate and adapt as we work at delivering higher public value.”8

The success of the SG50 celebrations would not have been possible if these new capabilities, mind-sets and behaviours have not already begun to take root. Having delivered on SG50 in partnership with Singaporeans, the Public Service has gained the experience and valuable insights necessary to continue on its journey of transformation with confidence, as Singapore looks forward to the next 50 years and beyond.


The impact of SG50 continued to be felt even after 2015 drew to a close.

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Dr Yee Lai Fong is Principal Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. Her research and teaching focus is on public engagement. She was attached to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s SG50 Programme Office as a learning historian to distil the public sector’s collective learning insights and key considerations behind the planning and execution of SG50. She holds a Doctorate in Human and Organisational Learning from The George Washington University.


  2. J. Malpas, “New media, cultural heritage and the sense of place: Mapping the conceptual ground,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 14(2008): 197–209.
  3. E. Giaccardi and L. Palen, “The social production of heritage through cross-media interaction: Making place for place-making,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 14(2008): 281–97.
  4. In particular, the SG50 logo was intentionally designed for easy customisation and use by partners and the general public, as a common branding for the Golden Jubilee Celebrations.
  5. Geoff Mulgan, “The Rise of the Relational State” (paper presented at the NS6 International Roundtable, London, United Kingdom, 16–18 November 2010).
  6. See note 5.
  7. Jocelyne Bourgon, “The future of public service: A search for a new balance,” The Australian Journal of Public Administration 67(2008): 390–404; E. Klijin, “Complexity theory and public administration: What’s new?” Public Management Review 10(2008): 299–317.
  8. Peter Ong, “Public service wants to crowdsource, consult and co-create,” The Straits Times, 5 November 2015.

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